‘Commentgate’ isn’t going away any time soon — nor should it

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More strange stuff coming our way as the Commentgate Carnival continues.

More strange stuff is coming our way as the Commentgate Carnival continues.

The parades are over and Lent is here.  But a second Carnival season looms — one that promises to be no fun at all.

In a regular Mardi Gras we get to abandon our identities and join a dionysian throng. But in this bizarro-world Carnival-to-come, we’re tasked with un-masking and identifying individuals hiding in the crowd. The stakes are high in this strange parade, information scarce, and worst of all there’s little sense of levity.

We’re referring of course to the rumbling scandal in which figures high in the federal justice system made pseudonymous comments under stories on NOLA.com. Commentgate, as I’ll call it until a better name surfaces, has already led to dropped criminal probes, high-profile retrials and stunning resignations in the local office of the U.S. attorney.

Made from 2008 to 2012, the online postings by federal prosecutors continue to reverberate throughout the justice system. The comments provided a basis for U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt’s order to retry New Orleans police officers convicted of killing unarmed civilians on the Danziger Bridge in Katrina’s aftermath. It was a stunning reversal of a landmark civil rights verdict.

The postings helped businessman (and former federal target) Fred Heebe, whose legal team outed commenter “Henry L. Mencken1951” in March 2012. Assistant U.S. Attorney Sal Perricone copped to the alias and soon retired. Later that year Heebe’s team unmasked First U.S. Attorney Jan Mann as “eweman.” Mann retired, along with her colleague and husband Jim Mann. Their boss, longtime U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, also stepped down.

But that was just “the tip of the iceberg,” according to Heebe. He was right.  Not long afterward the government dropped its criminal investigation of the River Birch landfill business he co-owned. Since then we’ve learned that U.S. Justice Department attorney Karla Dobinski posted comments on the Danziger trial, and so did an unnamed FBI agent.

Those tidbits are important and still startling. But I fear their constant repetition during this fact-starved scandal leads us to wrongly presume we grasp its full dimensions. We don’t. Repeat after me: WE DON’T KNOW JACK SQUAT. The next time you read an article on Commentgate — and you will— whisper that mantra under your breath.

We’re two years deep in this scandal and still can’t answer any of the fundamental questions: How many feds were making comments? How many usernames were used? How many comments were written?

Based on my research I’ll wager that there are many thousands of undiscovered comments written by feds who are supposed to be impartial servants of the law.

Then there’s the content of the posts: What did they say? What did they reveal? Did federal prosecutors push a common agenda? Did they not just “appear” on certain comment threads, but dominate them? To what extent did they work together? To what extent did they use deceptive tactics like sockpuppetry to bully other participants in these online gatherings around the crackerbarrel?

Two years into a mega-scandal, we’re still lurching along in fits and starts. (Mostly fits.) To root out a commenter in a particular case, it seems we have to wait until the defense team decides that it suits the client’s interests, or until a federal judge launches his own investigation. We deserve better.

As Engelhardt recommended, we need a painfully thorough, independent investigation of Commentgate, with findings made public (unlike the still-sealed Horn report). After all, there might be  some commenters still working in the U.S. Attorney’s office now headed by Kenneth Polite. By laying low and staying mum, they may have jeopardized more recent federal trials.

How many more federal prosecutors and Department of Justice attorneys and FBI agents need to be outed as commenters before the general public demands a full account? Without one, how can we avoid a steady loss of confidence in the justice system? In coming columns I’ll provide fresh Commentgate disclosures, while also pointing out a possible investigative path forward through this murky milieu.

Clearly, my skepticism is off the charts at this point. Previous columns that seemed recklessly speculative now appear embarrassingly tame. I’ve steadfastly predicted more disclosures in this saga, and continue to do so. Just keep in mind, we don’t know the half of it.

Yesterday’s cold and rainy Mardi Gras was a miserable “Carnival atmosphere.” But it might have been good preparation for the strange season to come.

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